How to be a Roman: A Day in the Life of a Roman Family
Paul Chrystal
Amberley Publishing
96pp, 50 colour, 18 black-and-white illustrations
Paperback, £9.99

What did the Romans do all day? Visions of senatorial debates, rowdy gladiatorial contests and bawdy aristocratic banquets come to mind. Now Paul Chrystal, author of numerous books on Roman history, such as In Bed with the Romans and Women in Ancient Rome, has produced what he describes as a 'one day snapshot' of the day-to-day life of a typical, rather well-to-do Roman family. We meet the Priscus family – father, mother, son and daughter – and we follow their routine daily activities and those of their slaves in their home on the Palatine, from the moment they rise before dawn until they retire at night.

The time is AD 80 during the early empire when, as Chrystal reminds us, the reigning emperor is Titus, Rome is recovering after the eruption of Mt Vesuvius and the Colosseum is being inaugurated with 100 days of free games and a welter of bloodshed. Meanwhile in Britannia, Gnaeus Julius Agricola has reached the River Tyre-Solway Firth frontier He has also circumnavigated Britannia, establishing that it is an island, and is launching the invasion of Caledonia. There is a useful introduction to the Roman calendar – and its reformation by Julius Caesar – and the way in which the Romans divided up their day and the months of the year.

Chrystal's device of using a day in the life of a family as the fulcrum of his guide is a handy one, enabling him to appraise many aspects of Roman society, domestic and public, within an engaging personal narrative. We become acquainted with an array of subjects, including the arrangement and accoutrements of the home, clothing and personal grooming, occupations and trades, the education of children, slavery, religion, the legal system, popular entertainment and dining. He examines these subjects broadly showing us how they form part of, and drive, the Priscus' domestic life. We can join Javolenus Priscus, a lawyer, as he goes off to do battle in the law courts; his wife, Caecilia, as she sallies forth on a shopping trip; and the whole family as they go to watch the races at the Circus Maximus, or enjoy their evening meal – a quiet affair in contrast to some of the more extravagant dining that goes on in Rome.

Reinforced by ample quotations from Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Pliny the Elder, Seneca, Cicero and others, Chrystal brings their world to life with a vividly striking and contemporary feel. Aided by these sources, he conjures the hubbub and melée of ancient Rome with its haves and have-nots, and its many everyday conventions and preoccupations, some of which are rather alien to us but many of which seem very familiar.

Simply and clearly told, this work is ideal for students, but anyone with an interest in ancient Rome will find it an informative, entertaining journey into a world which so greatly influenced our own times, and which continues to intrigue us.
Diana Bentley

 

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